Fact sheets

Australian Communities: Vietnamese Australians

Refugees from the war in Vietnam were the first large group of Asian immigrants to settle in Australia after the end of the White Australia policy in 1973. Because of their plight they were initially sympathetically received by the Anglo-European Australians. As their numbers increased this turned to apprehension which in time became acceptance.

The greatest proportion of Vietnamese Australians live in Sydney with strong vibrant communities in Sydney’s west and south west although many second generation now live throughout greater Sydney. The social mix of the refugees included people from all professions and walks of life in Vietnam which is reflected in today’s Vietnamese Australian communities.

Vietnam, officially the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, is a narrow S-shaped country extending 1,650 kilometres along a north–south axis bounded by China to the north, Laos and Cambodia to the west, and the Gulf of Tonkin and the South China Sea to the east and south.

Vietnam’s climate is tropical in the south, monsoonal in the north with a hot, rainy season from May to September and a warm, dry season from October to March. The terrain is diverse with low, flat deltas in the south and north, central highlands, and mountains in the far north and northwest. Vietnam is densely populated with over 92 million people in an area less than half the size of New South Wales.

Brief History

About 2,000 years ago people in the region which is now North Vietnam began growing rice in the Red River Valley. To irrigate their crops they built dykes and dug canals. They were forced to work together and so an organised kingdom emerged called Van Lang. However in the 2nd century BC the Chinese conquered the area. The Chinese ruled northern Vietnam for more than 1,000 years and Chinese civilisation had a great impact on the Vietnamese. In South Vietnam there was also an Indian influence in Funan and Champa.

The northern people resented Chinese rule and in 40 AD the Trung sisters led a rebellion and briefly formed an independent state. In 43 AD the Chinese crushed the rebellion and the sisters committed suicide. The Trung sisters are still revered in Vietnam as a national symbol for Vietnamese women.  The Chinese ruled North Vietnam until the 10th century when Ngo Quyen defeated the Chinese and North Vietnam became an independent state. Despite attempts by the Chinese to regain North Vietnam in the 15th century it remained under the control of the Le dynasty until the dynasty’s demise in the 16th century.  

In the 17th and 18th centuries two rival families held power, the Trinh lords in the north and the Nguyen lords in the south. In the late 18th century three rebel brothers also called Nguyen gradually took control of the whole of Vietnam and one brother, Nguyen Hue made himself Emperor Quang Trung. However a Nguyen lord escaped, raised an army and pushed back the rebels taking Hanoi in 1802. He became Emperor Gia Long and under his rule Vietnam became a strong united kingdom.
The Portuguese reached Vietnam by sea in 1516. With them came missionaries, first Dominicans then Jesuits and the Roman Catholic Church became a presence in Vietnam. Under the pretext of protecting the clergy France took over Vietnam in stages beginning in the south in 1859 and finally in 1887 all of Vietnam became a French protectorate, part of French Indochina.

The French built infrastructure in Vietnam including roads, bridges and the Saigon to Hanoi railway, funded by heavy taxationof the Vietnamese people. The Vietnamese wanted independence. The Communists spearheaded the struggle for independence. Ho Chi Minh founded the Revolutionary Youth League from the safety of China in 1925. In 1930 it became the Vietnamese Communist party.

After World War II Vietnam declared independence, but France continued to rule until its 1954 defeat by communist forces under Ho Chi Minh. Under the Geneva Accords of 1954, Vietnam was divided into the communist North and anti-communist South. US economic and military aid to South Vietnam grew through the 1960s in an attempt to bolster the government. An inconclusive war ensued but US and allied forces were withdrawn following a cease-fire agreement in 1973.

Two years later, North Vietnamese forces invaded the South reuniting the country under communist rule. Despite the return of peace, for over a decade the new Socialist Republic of Vietnam experienced little economic growth because of conservative leadership policies, the persecution and mass exodus of people - many of them South Vietnamese professionals and successful businessmen - and growing international isolation.

In 1986 the Vietnamese government committed to the Doi Moi (renovation) Policy with liberalising financial and structural reforms needed to modernise the economy and produce more competitive, export-driven industries. However the government maintains control on political expression and has resisted calls to improve human rights especially for minority groups.

Migration to Australia

The migration of Vietnamese to Australia, which has occurred mostly in the last 40 years, has three distinct phases: assisting orphans pre-1975; refugee resettlement during 1975–1985; and family reunions, since the late 80s.

From 1958, Vietnamese students started to arrive in Australia to study at universities under the Colombo Plan. Almost all of these students returned to Vietnam after finishing their courses.  In 1975 there were only about 1,000 people born in Vietnam living in Australia: 335 Colombo Plan students; 130 private Vietnamese students; and over 500 orphans adopted by Australian families.

Australia committed combat troops to the Vietnam War in 1965. Later, many of these troops and other Australians married Vietnamese people and brought them back to Australia. This was the beginning of the first wave of permanent Vietnamese migration to Australia.

During the Vietnam war over half the population was internally displaced and millions were killed. As a result, there were over 800,000 orphans in South Vietnam alone. Australian families adopted 537 Vietnamese orphaned babies and infants between 1972 and 1975.

After the fall of Saigon in 1975, Australia accepted refugees who feared reprisals from the communist regime because of their economic or political activities under the previous Government and arrivals of Vietnamese people increased rapidly. In 1976 (the first Census at which the Vietnamese were recorded separately) there were 2,427 people born in Vietnamese in Australia and at the 1981 Census the population had increased to 41,096.

Vietnamese refugees who arrived in the immediate post-war period can be described as four main groups, with different but in some cases overlapping arrival times. The first group, arriving in 1975 were mostly elite Vietnamese, Chinese Businessmen and Catholics who faced severe reprisals from the new government.

The second group arriving in 1976–78 were a gradually increasing outflow of refugees from camps outside Vietnam. The third group, arriving in 1978, were mostly owners of private businesses, especially Chinese, expelled by the new Vietnam Government.

The fourth group were so called ‘economic refugees’, mostly small traders, rural and urban workers and the unemployed, who had made their way to refugee camps in Indonesia and Hong Kong and were looking for a more permanent home.

In April 1976, the first boat, Fishing Boat KG4435, carrying Vietnamese asylum seekers arrived in Darwin, followed, in the next five years, by 56 additional boats with 2,100 Vietnamese asylum seeking ‘boat people’.  The ‘boat people’ who mostly arrived in Australia’s north, were a very small part of the vast outflow of people from Vietnam. Most travelled by boat to nearby Asian countries where they were assessed and resettled in third countries including the USA, Canada and Australia. A small number of asylum seekers came directly to Australia. All of these asylum seekers were assessed, with very few repatriated.

The urgent need to resettle the large numbers of Vietnamese refugees in camps in neighbouring countries and the increasing flow to resettlement countries such as the USA, Canada and Australia led to international discussions and agreements. In Geneva in 1979, following negotiations between the Government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Vietnamese Government agreed to forcibly constrain unregulated departures, but to allow an Orderly Departure Program (ODP) in which Vietnamese were permitted to apply to migrate to specific countries.

In 1982 the first immigrants from Viet Nam under the ODP arrived in Australia. From the late 1980s this program was officially applied in Australia as the ‘Vietnamese Family Migration Program’ (VFMP). Under this program Vietnamese people with relatives in Australia were permitted to emigrate directly from Vietnam to Australia, subject to satisfying Australia’s standard refugee requirements.

Between 1975 and 1986, almost all of the Vietnamese arrivals were refugees. This decreased to around 45 per cent between 1986 and 1991 and only 22 per cent between 1991 and 1993. By 2000 the Vietnamese humanitarian arrivals were less than 2 per cent of the total Vietnamese settler arrivals.

In the 1991 National Census there were 124,800 people born in Vietnam resident in Australia and in 2001there were 154,000. The 2011Census indicated that 185,000 people born in Vietnam were resident in Australia and 219,000 people spoke Vietnamese at home. As many as a quarter of Vietnamese speakers in Australia are of Chinese ancestry but there is no real divide between ethnic Vietnamese and ethnic Chinese Vietnamese communities.

Mahayana Buddhism is the main religion of the community, followed by Christianity both Catholic and Protestant. The main festivals observed by Vietnamese Australians include Tet NguyenDan, the Lunar (or Chinese) New Year, and Tet Trung Thu (the Mid-Autumn Festival).

There are Vietnamese newspapers and a community literary and cultural website web site as well as radio stations and regular SBS television programs. Vietnamese community organisations thrive and are involved in community development, advocacy and social work.  Community members play an increasing role in local government as well as representation in the Upper Houses of both Victoria and Western Australia. Vietnamese Australians are also well represented in the arts and the professions

Prominent Australians of Vietnamese ancestry include:

Source and reference:

Theme: Cultural diversity and multiculturalism - Culture, language and identity - Migration and refugees
General Capabilities: Intercultural understanding
Cross curricular priorities: Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia